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A. Clayton Spencer, Harvard’s vice president for policy, has served as the right-hand woman for four Harvard presidents.
She arrived at the University in 1997 during the final days of University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s tenure. She weathered the controversy sparked by President Lawrence H. Summers’ infamous comments about women. After Summers’ sudden resignation, Spencer stuck by President Derek C. Bok when he came out of a nearly two-decade retirement to lead the University during the search for Harvard’s new president. Under President Drew G. Faust, Spencer witnessed the University at its economic nadir after the endowment dropped nearly 30 percent during the 2008 financial crisis.
Through it all, she has been a key figure in Massachusetts Hall. When asked about what Spencer’s responsibilities entailed, Faust responded, “That’s like asking me what my day-to-day duties are.”
But now Spencer will be striking out on her own. She is set to leave Harvard next month to become the eighth president of Bates College on July 1.
According to her colleagues, she will be sorely missed at Harvard, where her contributions have included the implementation of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, the creation of the Crimson Summer Academy, and the integration of Radcliffe and Harvard Colleges.
“Anything good that’s happened in the time she’s been here, there is very little question [whether] she had a hand it in,” says William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. “If anything that happened that wasn’t good when she was here, you can also be almost guaranteed that she opposed it.”
While Spencer has played a crucial role behind-the-scenes at Harvard, she will now step out into the public spotlight at Bates.
“It was terrific working under four different presidents,” Spencer says of her time at Harvard. “I had the most amazing tutorial in university leadership that anyone could ever have.”
‘THE FAMILY BUSINESS’
Spencer describes higher education as “the family business.”
The daughter of a university president, Spencer grew up in a household where the logistics of running an institute of higher education was a usual topic of conversation at the dinner table.
Spencer says this proximity to university administrators has informed her role in Massachusetts Hall.
“I’ve seen that leadership in higher education is really the intersection of a kind of love for the enterprise, intelligence, data, good decision making, values, sound judgment,” she says. “That’s kind of what I grew up with.”
Born December 1954 in Concord, N.C., Spencer has spent much of her life earning degrees from various educational institutions. She studied at Phillips Exeter Academy, majored in history and German at Williams College, read theology at Oxford, and then returned to the United States to study religion at Harvard.
Spencer says she originally intended to become a traditional academic. “I fell in love with the study of religion, but then I decided I didn’t love it enough to make that my life,” Spencer says. “Then I went to law school.”
She says that even as she worked towards earning her J.D. at Yale Law School, she knew she wanted to enter the field of higher education. In her law school applications, she described her love for academia as her reason for wanting to study law.
“I always knew I wanted to work in the field,” Spencer says. “I was completely agnostic about what particular roles I might end up playing.”
After a brief stint working in a traditional law firm, Spencer moved to Washington D.C., where she found a job that combined her love for the law and devotion to academia. While she worked in the office of Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, Spencer served as chief education counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources and helped to push through a slew of education policies.
In 1997, Spencer left Washington D.C. for Cambridge, where her then-husband was on the faculty of Harvard Kennedy School, and took a job as a consultant and advisor in Rudenstine’s administration.
THE PRESIDENT’S RIGHT HAND
Spencer has quickly ascended the ranks of Mass Hall to become what senior administrators have described as one of the most influential voices in the central administration.
When Spencer first arrived at the University she was tasked with helping to orchestrate the official merger of Harvard and Radcliffe. Though the University had become co-educational decades before, the schools were still technically two separate entities. After the integration was complete, Spencer assisted in transforming Radcliffe College grounds into the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study that exists today.
She also became a member of the search committees for many high-level deans. Rudenstine, who served as president at the time, describes her as one of his two “chief advisors.”
“I knew she would be very, very good,” says Rudenstine. “I don’t think I could have guessed the whole evolution—not because she didn’t have the talent, but because I didn’t know what role she wanted to play.”
In the years that followed, Spencer received a number of promotions and roles of increasing importance. In 2005, Spencer found herself in the role of Vice President for Policy, the position she holds now. In this role she worked on a number of important initiatives that have defined her legacy at Harvard and reputation in the world of higher education.
The Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, which greatly expanded and simplified Harvard’s financial aid offerings, is perhaps the most well-known of her efforts. Lawrence H. Summers had announced that Harvard would redo its financial aid policies in 2004 and Spencer’s expertise in analytics allowed administrators to crunch the numbers.
Faust says that figuring out how to use data most effectively is an important part of her role, and was a skill that was particularly crucial to HFAI.
“I think I can say clearly that I don’t think that our financial aid initiatives would have occurred in anywhere near the shape or form that they have without her and she was in on the ground floor from the very beginning,” Fitzsimmons says.
With HFAI, as with the many other projects she led, Spencer also played an influential role in winning over skeptics in the faculty and administration.
“Harvard is a very budget conscious place and there were many who didn’t want to spend money on a new initiative and Clayton helped to persuade them that they were wrong—helped persuade them that this was an important investment in Harvard’s future,” says Summers.
Fitzsimmons and others say that this ability to build bridges and get along with a wide range of people is one of Spencer’s most notable strengths.
“There was a relatively small staff so we worked very, very closely together,” Rudenstine says. “She is a person, at least in my view, who is very open, very outgoing, very communicative and a person with whom it is very easy to form a candid relationship.”
Though Spencer insists she is not shy, she acknowledges that she has kept a low profile to allow her colleagues to take the spotlight. Despite several requests, the interview for this article marks only the second time she has granted an interview to The Crimson.
“She is probably the least selfish person I have seen in the academic world or any other world in terms of getting credit for her ideas or her hard work,” Fitzsimmons says. “In fact, she’s always been very publicity shy.”
Even as Spencer prepares to leave Mass Hall, she remains reluctant to take credit for her accomplishments. For example, while Faust and Summers credit Spencer for playing a major role in the creation of the Crimson Summer Academy, Spencer says that she is proud of the project but insists that “none of the credit belongs to me.”
Despite her modesty, Spencer says that she looks forward to having a position in the spotlight when she takes over at Bates.
“I will get a huge kick out of speaking to the press once I’m the leader in my own right,” she says.
A NEW CHALLENGE
For Spencer, the transition from Harvard’s vice president for policy to Bates’ president will be dramatic. In a month’s time, Spencer will be thrust from the back rooms of academia and into the limelight as the leader of one of America’s most prominent liberal arts colleges.
As the president of Bates, she will be responsible for overseeing a faculty of more than 200. While leading an academic institution will be a new task for Spencer, those who have worked closely with Spencer say she is up to the task.
“The key things in many colleges is that the person be able to work well with the different groups that need attention and also [have an] academic vision, which I think she can provide,” Rudenstine says. “You can’t be at Harvard for the better part of a decade without being saturated with its intellectual activity.”
And her comfort with the world of academia is evident: she opines at length about learning and the future of knowledge.
“The biggest challenges are the explosion of knowledge and the changing shape of knowledge,” she says. “What I would I like to see Bates do, and I’ve got a sense that it would be very fun to do, is [embrace] those forces.”
Spencer also said she plans to use her position as president of Bates to continue her efforts to expand accessibility to higher education. But, at Bates, an institution with only 1,800 students and a $183 million endowment, the task is far different than at Harvard.
“There’s a very strong progressive tradition at Bates that is kind of a model of inclusivity and the notion that everybody deserves an education. It completely resonates with my basic values about access and affordability,” she says. “It will be an absolute priority to bring financial aid dollars at Bates.... We’ll be fundraising against it the whole time and in that sense we’re never going to take the pressure off that issue.”
Even as Spencer departs for Bates, her friends and colleagues at Harvard say they will continue to seek her wisdom.
“You cannot replace a person like her, but I intend to draw on her,” says Fitzsimmons, noting that Lewiston, Maine, where Bates is located, is only a short distance away. “She’s a person who becomes a lifelong friend and will never go away.”
—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at email@example.com.
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